NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The crisis which broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 was the worst since independence. In the five weeks before a ceasefire was signed on Jan. 23, nearly 690,000 people were displaced and thousands killed.
So what’s next for South Sudan? What impact will the conflict have on South Sudan going forwards? What are the root causes of the violence? What is the role of the international community, and will bringing perpetrators of abuses to justice do more harm than good?
Following is an edited transcript of an online discussion held on Jan. 22, the day before a ceasefire was signed between the government and rebel representatives.
The debate is part of Thomson Reuters Foundation’s reporting on the crisis in South Sudan. Thomson Reuters Foundation journalists Katy Migiro, East Africa correspondent, and Alex Whiting, London correspondent, organised the debate, and the panellists were:
- David Deng - research director, South Sudan Law Society (Juba)
- Sara Pantuliano - head of Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute (London)
- Joshua Craze - researcher, Small Arms Survey (Geneva)
- Don Bosco Malish - programme officer, Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (Juba)
- Heather Pagano - regional information officer, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Juba)
- Challiss McDonough - spokeswoman, World Food Programme (Juba)
Q (From Katy Migiro): Challiss, the U.N. says that only just over 40 percent of the internally displaced have received any aid. Why are you having such a problem responding to this humanitarian crisis?
MCDONOUGH: Partly because of the extreme levels of insecurity -- it's hard to distribute aid in the midst of active fighting. It can be dangerous not only for the aid workers but for the civilians we're trying to help.
But the displacement in this crisis is also pretty unusual -- normally people run away from an area where there's fighting, and you can assist them where they arrive, but in this case people have sought shelter in UN compounds in the midst of active conflict zones, and those compounds are not designed as IDP camps.
There are many more people in places that agencies can't reach. These are populations on the move -- they have fled their homes to a place of safety, but then the front lines shift and they have to flee again. So it's a matter of actually getting food or other aid items to people where they are -- and that has been changing, often very quickly.
DENG: Also complicating things are Sudanese refugees from Southern Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile who were in camps near the border. They are now trapped between two war fronts without anywhere to turn.
MIGIRO: Challiss, WFP is used to delivering food aid to parts of South Sudan that are in conflict, such as Jonglei State. What makes it worse than previous years?
MCDONOUGH: Something else that's been happening in this conflict on a much larger scale than in the previous conflicts in Jonglei is the looting of humanitarian goods - including thousands of metric tons of food, aid agency vehicles, medical supplies. You can't distribute aid that's been taken.
DENG: Humanitarian presence is also unfortunately being politicized. Government questioning whether UNMISS considers itself to be a parallel government in South Sudan. Inflammatory statements like these are just adding fuel to an already volatile situation.
MIGIRO: Heather, what kinds of challenges is MSF facing in providing medical care during this conflict?
PAGANO: Right now we at MSF face two major challenges in providing humanitarian medical care. One is the sheer scale of the needs on the ground. Not only are we extremely concerned for those directly affected by the violence, the war-wounded, but also for those indirectly affected – for the displaced, for those hiding in the bush too afraid to go in search of care, and for those who have zero access to healthcare given the high level of insecurity in many areas.
Half a million people have been displaced from their homes, fleeing from one desperate situation to another. Most fled with nothing and the conditions in the displaced camps are very difficult, without enough water, food or shelter. Disease outbreaks in squalid conditions in the camps are of serious concern.
The second major challenge we face is the appalling lack of respect for humanitarian facilities and staff. Despite that all sides have committed to respecting humanitarian activities & MSF’s willingness to scale-up operations & do more, on the ground MSF has had to evacuate staff on five separate occasions due to insecurity, and two facilities (Bentiu & Malakal) have been looted, leaving thousands of people without desperately needed healthcare. We need respect from all warring parties for the neutrality of health facilities, and the safety of patients and staff, or we simply can’t do our job.
MIGIRO: Heather, do you think we need a ceasefire to improve humanitarian access?
PAGANO: We believe the delivery of humanitarian aid should not be linked to any political process and should be respected at all times in conflict. While of course we would welcome a ceasefire, humanitarian access cannot be conditional to the cessation of hostilities. In fact, humanitarian access is even more important during hostilities, when so many people are affected by the conflict.
MEGAN ROWLING, JOURNALIST: How much damage do you think the recent conflict has done to development gains since South Sudan became a new nation? How damaging could this be for donor confidence? Will they walk away from development projects?
NDUNGU, PLAN INTERNATIONAL: I believe this conflict will set back development for many years. Image is what counts when it comes to attracting FDI. Right now the country’s image has taken a major hit.
DENG: South Sudan has been put back to square one. Most harmful impact is the division of society. Friends and former colleagues have become enemies. The situation is very polarized. Those of us in the middle risk becoming the enemy of both sides. Only a carefully designed and well resourced process of truth, justice and reconciliation can begin to heal these wounds.
PAGANO: After 30 years of conflict, the healthcare system was devastated - it would have taken years to rebuild in any case. Logistically it's a bit of a nightmare too - not many roads, really difficult to deliver supplies, the rainy season presents a whole other difficulty in providing care. MSF is an emergency organisation - and we've been working in South Sudan for 30 years and it's our second biggest country of intervention worldwide... that suggests there is quite a lot to do in terms of building up the health system, even before the current conflict.
MIGIRO: What the last five weeks of fighting mean, in terms of people’s ability to eat and get health care?
PAGANO: Even before the conflict broke out, South Sudan’s health system was extremely fragile - 80% of the health services were provided by international organisations - so for MSF the current conflict exacerbates an already dire situation.
In many areas, the healthcare system has collapsed due to the conflict – the clinics have not be re-supplied and the medical staff have fled, leaving women without a safe place to give birth or sick children with nowhere to turn. We also see that host communities are increasingly affected by the huge numbers of displaced that have arrived in their areas – for example Awerial in Lakes State was home to 10,000 people and now more than 85,000 displaced now call it their home too.
Even if hostilities cease tomorrow, South Sudan will continue to face a critical humanitarian crisis for a long time to come. In addition to the physical needs of people, such as food, water and healthcare, entire communities have been devastated. The damage that has been done cannot be undone by a cessation of hostilities.
MCDONOUGH: This conflict broke out during what in many of the affected areas is still the harvest season, so people have been unable to harvest their crops, and that will affect them for months to come. Even those who harvested earlier have had to abandon their harvests, leaving them with basically nothing at a time of year when food security is usually strongest.
Before the conflict, some 4 million South Sudanese were affected by food security at some point during the year. It's still a bit too early to tell how many more will be unable to get enough to eat, but it is certain to be many more. Probably more than half the population of the country will see their food security affected by this conflict – either because of the direct loss of crops, or the rising prices for staple goods.
Markets have been burned, transport corridors disrupted -- which means that the impact of the crisis will be felt beyond the areas where fighting is actually taking place.
AIMEE BROWN, OXFAM: I agree. The needs due to this conflict are not only immediate. Thought must also be given to the emerging long-term needs essential for people getting back on their feet - like income and livelihood generating support.
GRACE CAHILL, OXFAM: The regional impact on trade is huge - far fewer goods coming from Uganda, oil production down by 1/3. This will cause further long-term damage for poorest and most vulnerable.
PLAN RESA: Some children have been recruited as child soldiers, young women and girls have been attacked & abused. The trauma of witnessing this is long-lasting and trust between groups in the country diminished. Some estimate the conflict has set back a generation – and it is true the impact upon a country with already very low education, will be huge. Furthermore, the international community’s and business world’s faith will have been diminished.
DENG: Sad thing is that the people at the negotiating table appear immune and indifferent to the people's suffering.
RACHEL GORDON, FEINSTEIN: I wonder about the idea of "rebuilding" livelihoods - what/when was the stable norm to which people can supposedly return, and how would they get there now even if desirable? Support for livelihoods will be critical, as it was already. But what does that mean in a context in which livelihoods s were already very insecure?
MIGIRO: Let’s cross now to Addis, where the peace talks are taking place. Don Bosco, can you tell us why the two parties are finding it so hard to agree to a ceasefire?
MALISH: The current difficulty experienced in securing a cease fire in the South Sudan Crisis is largely due to the intervention of foreign forces in the internal conflict in South Sudan especially Uganda. Uganda’s intervention made IGAD to have double standard and bias in leading the mediation process. Uganda’s presence acts as an invitation for regional actors to intervene – which is largely due to ego. We are not sure how many are already on board.
My feeling is that parties should really think about the suffering of their people. The damage is done and an immediate ceasefire may not translate into peace but it would grant the people some space to create an enabling environment.
To unlock this current situation two options come to mind. One, the cease fire agreement must include a clause for Ugandan troops to withdraw; or two, another body takes up the mediation process as IGAD will be viewed bias, distrusted and having double standards.
NDUNGU: I believe there is no military solution to this problem. A political solution however is quite possible. If the two main protagonists come to an agreement the rest of the country will follow.
ABRAHAM RADIO: The background to this conflict is complex and some of the key issues go back many decades. The issues which have triggered this crisis are political, economic, historic and ethnic. The sticking point still seems to be around the events of last summer (when the cabinet was sacked). It is positive that parties are involved in talks and we all hope they will be fruitful – it is essential that dialogue remains open.
SKYE WHEELER, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: A quick end to the conflict is of course what everyone wants but concerned that space is made for justice and accountability - or else we risk seeing a repeat of the serious violations -- including widespread ethnic targeting and killing of civilians -- down the road.
Are diplomats, other regional leaders, and SS leaders on both sides of this terrible conflict taking justice and accountability seriously enough?
NDUNGU: I disagree with those who are demanding justice and accountability at this time. They are important but will likely just polarize things a lot more. For now an unsatisfactory accommodation that allows the country to find peace and stability is more important than laying blame on one side or the other.
CRAZE: Ndungu --I agree. A messy compromise agreement without much atonement (never mind justice and reconciliation) seems like the most likely way out of the current situation.
NDUNGU: If peace is to start and take hold we (the international community) must avoid all acts that seem to apportion blame. I know this flies in the face of all norms of justice and human right, but it may be the price that all must pay if this sad chapter is to be closed. The issue of justice and reparations should be left to a future where such efforts are not likely to recreate conflict.
DENG: Interestingly enough, the negotiating parties and relevant third parties are all recognizing the need for accountability (publicly at least). Challenge will be making sure that it's not one-sided justice. There will be a strong push from both sides to focus on atrocities committed by the other.
WHEELER: On the peace vs justice and accountability question - some believe that much of the violence is happening in the form of reprisals, esp. for ethnic killings. If there was an alternative to "rough justice" - perhaps a impartial, international commission of inquiry into the violations since Dec 15, 2013, would that not help reduce tensions, reduce violence and in fact open the way for peace ... perhaps a more lasting one?
CRAZE: What I don't quite understand, with the discussions about commissions of inquiry, is why we are even talking about them yet, when the fighting is ongoing, and surely any commissions of inquiry, and their extent, can only be discussed once the post-conflict political landscape is clearer. Or am I missing something?
PANTULIANO: A longer term process must come out of the short term mediation around immediate issues, or South Sudan risks facing the same problems due to the deeper rooted issues which have yet to be addressed. Deeply entrenched divisions, unaddressed grievances and other drivers of instability must be addressed through an inclusive mediation process, reconciliation and nation-building. But I agree that stopping the violence immediately is the priority now, and these issues will need to be addressed long-term.
WHEELER: The commission of inquiry HRW and others envisage would include a proper investigation into human rights violations - this means gathering testimony, doing forensic work etc. The sooner the better for these kinds of investigations. And the sooner there's some serious truth telling about what's been happening the better too. We can't wait until the end of the conflict to get this going. It also sends a strong message to leaders on both sides that this time around the world's not going to ignore or give abusive commanders/leaders a "pass" when war crimes and HR violations are committed.
MIGIRO: What do you think can be done to unlock the peace talks?
CRAZE: The situation on the battlefield will 'unlock' the peace talks. Clashes and negotiations are not opposed. They are part of a continuum of options for both sides.
PANTULIANO: International and regional governments need to continue to engage in the mediation with patience, humility and perseverance. There is no magic bullet.
NDUNGU: I believe the presence of the international community and the continued media attention to this crisis will help with the peace process. It is important to remember that this conflict is a major embarrassment to the leadership of the county, one they would want to see end. I also believe both sides know that no military solution is possible even in the short term.
Joshua, I agree with you. It is too early to talk about commissions and tribunals. Right now the priority is to save lives and seek a political resolution that brings some peace. The rest can follow.
I am not an expert in peace negotiations but one important point: the negotiators must find a way to allow Riek to come to government with some dignity. Otherwise the national polarisation that has occurred will continue even after an agreement is signed. Remember also that signing an agreement and implementing (as we have seen in the past in this region) are two different things.
KILLEN OTIENO: Protection of innocent civilians should be on top of the agenda for the regional bodies and the international community.
ABRAHAM RADIO: I agree. The first step is to bring peace and resettle IDPs.
ALEX WHITING, JOURNALIST: What role does oil play in this conflict?
CRAZE: Oil isn't directly a stake in the political struggles underlying the conflict, but control of the oil fields, as during the second civil war, is a potentially crucial resource, and oil flows determines the way a bunch of international actors (from China to Sudan) align themselves. The economic and humanitarian costs of the lost oil revenue are of course immense.
JENNY, DEVEX: I have three questions for the panellists: One, how do we know that South Sudan is truly headed toward a prolonged civil war?
CRAZE: One indication that this will last for a long-time is that while [South Sudan’s President Salva] Kiir is both militarily ascendant at the moment, and largely backed by the international community (and Uganda), to the extent that a [former vice president Riek] Machar-led government seems like an impossibility, he is also extremely unpopular, and has lost legitimacy with vast swathes of the population, indicating that we could see a grim repetition of the second civil war, with the government holding the urban centres, this time with Sudanese and Ugandan support, while the rebels dominate the bush.
PANTULIANO: The violence has created a cycle of revenge and fear which will be extremely damaging for the future cohesion of the country in any case. The longer the violence continues, the more difficult it will be to stop the country from sliding in a protracted all-out war.
NDUNGU: I believe South Sudan can avoid a civil war, in fact I bet they will. What comes next is the question. One way or the other we must help the country to stabilise and then develop. In short the people must see there is greater benefit to peace than war. This means the issue of youth alienation and deprivation must be addressed as a priority.
JOHN MUSTAPHA KUTIYOTE: South Sudan can only avoid a prolonged civil war if the current situation is solved peacefully around a negotiating table not through violence.
JENNY: Two, If it's headed toward a prolonged civil war, I would think that aid groups' long term development plans would be disrupted and would have to shift to emergency work. Is this correct? If so, any back-up plans? What will happen to donors’ funds specifically meant for long-term development work?
PANTULIANO: The key is to avoid the ‘pendulum swing’ in the aid response. Some governments are already threatening to reduce/cut long term aid programmes, which remain essential in large parts of the country. The response needs to be tailored to the different realties on the ground, and will need to combine both humanitarian and development interventions.
PAGANO: I would argue that there was already in a humanitarian crisis in much of South Sudan before this conflict began. There should be space for both development aid AND humanitarian aid like MSF's in the country. Before the crisis both were needed - and now during and after this conflict ends, development aid to rebuild the country and humanitarian aid to keep people alive during the building process will both be desperately needed.
PANTULIANO: Heather, 100% agreed. The problem is that the conventional aid architecture has proven once again to be ill equipped to cater for a situation that spanned humanitarian and development needs. As in many ‘post-conflict’ countries, from the beginning South Sudan still needed support for direct service delivery, alongside support for the building of government capacity, but the latter was prioritised in the name of state building de facto leaving a number of communities poorly served if at all.
JENNY: Three, the paper "Aiding the peace" talks about how donors sort of failed to grasp the idea that providing services, more aid, to South Sudan is not the answer to lasting peace. If this is the case, then what is the answer to lasting peace in South Sudan?
NDUNGU: The present situation is not terminal. If Riek and Kiir find an accommodation to work with each, other the people will follow and quite soon. Neighbouring Kenya is a good example that even ethnic divisions can be bridged and quite quickly if the leaders want to. The next step then will be re-engaging the nation in the positive project of rebuilding and development.
CRAZE: Ndungu, agreed. Despite the levels of violence, it is instructive (and hopeful) to see how quickly people can live in peace again. The second-civil-war SPLA split, and the subsequent reconciliation in South Sudan, is instructive. It may have been superficial, on many levels, but, pragmatically, it worked. At least for a while. The most powerful way to mend the damage is for people to be able to get on with their lives.
SAM ROSMARIN, OXFAM: Jenny, after peace is restored, we need donors to focus on revitalising the national dialogue that existed before independence. There are deep-seated issues that must be addressed at the community level and between communities. The South Sudanese must lead this process, but donors can support it.
PANTULIANO: Critical issues identified back in 2005 are still unaddressed, such as youth alienation and specific tensions around water and land which that were exacerbated by the poor process of reintegration of demobilised soldiers and the enormous return of populations from Khartoum and abroad since 2005. These issues have ended up being a fertile ground for today’s political rivalry to spiral into a widespread conflict and will need to be at the centre of any future aid response.
NDUNGU: I agree with Sam. One way the international community could help assure long term stability is in building credible national institutions that will enable South Sudanese to disagree without resulting to the force of arms. But the country is likely to remain on a humanitarian crisis footing for many years so I don't know if this will be donor priority.
WHITING: Are the govt threats to curb/cut aid having an impact on the mediation process?
PANTULIANO: The idea is that the threat of cutting aid would offer some leverage, same as the sanctions that are being talked about, but I am personally sceptical that either will have any leverage, and in the case of aid cuts it will only end up further affecting communities in great need.
GORDON: Do you think there's space for donors to use aid as leverage, while avoiding the pendulum swing? I'm thinking specifically of justice and reconciliation processes, but perhaps also for other longer-term stabilization mechanisms that the political players seem unlikely to pursue without some compelling reason.
NDUNGU: I would strongly oppose the idea of using aid withholding as threat. With so many people in dire straits, and likely to remain so, this would be equivalent to dancing on the graves of the dying.
PAGANO: I'm always nervous to see aid used as any kind of political leverage. Humanitarian aid should never be subject to political processes. We argue body and soul against this kind of narrative, as it politicises aid & makes doing our job much more dangerous.
PANTULIANO: The short answer is no!
GORDON: I should have clarified that I didn't mean humanitarian/emergency aid, but was thinking more of long-term institutional support and other aid. Ideally it's not politicised of course, but realistically (in my admittedly limited experience) it seems that nearly everything is at least viewed as political in South Sudan. How can donors deal more effectively with that reality (if it is that)?
WHEELER: UN and others should consider targeted sanctions like asset freezes on individuals who have been credibly accused of committing violations.
NDUNGU: Skye, I hear you. But I think you are jumping the gun here (sorry for the unfortunate phrase). Cessation in hostilities first, some stabilization and return to normalcy next and then the question of justice can be addressed. Even then it will end up being an unsatisfactory effort - in an atmosphere of polarisation and a highly militarised society with a weak government, forgiving and forgetting may end up being the only solution.
CRAZE: The problem of targeted sanctions is that they could recall the case of the Darfur sanctions, where the UN did not have the power to ensure that the sanctions were properly implemented, they could not make the sanctions regime coherent, and they broke their own rules, and ferried people about, despite being under their own sanctions! Sanctioning the leading players in this conflict will only make a sustainable political settlement more unlikely.
Jérôme Tubiana has a good short piece explaining some of the issues faced by the Darfur sanctions, and which are likely to be even more problematic in the case of South Sudan, in which the leaders that need freedom of movement to negotiate, are precisely the people who should be sanctioned. www.opendemocracy.net
ROSMARIN: On justice, I don't think you can separate the long and short term. The UN mission must be able to bear witness and collect information on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Ivan Simonovic warned of violations during his visit.